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Remixing in Contemporary Art and Design

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Contemporary art and design are in an era where “every new idea is just a mash up or a remix of one or more previous ideas”. Indeed, rather than being the death of creativity, remixing allows individuals to reinterpret the original meaning of an artwork in various context and opens the way to a more creative approach in art and design. Through appropriation, recycling, collaging and other forms of remix art; artists can successfully explore controversial issues; challenge existing social norms and popular culture. Napalm is a stencil print in grey, black, and white made in 2004 by British graffiti artist Banksy which criticized American capitalism and consumerism. The title Can’t beat the Feelin’ was taken from a Coca-Cola slogan during the 1990s. In the center of the work, there’s a naked girl running and holding hands with the two icons of consumer culture in the United States – Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald. However, the contrast in appearance between the three characters was striking: while the girl looks all terrified and vulnerable, the two remaining figures are smiling contentedly. The juxtaposition between these two instantly recognizable, smiling characters and the horror-stricken Napalm girl gave the artwork a twisted and sinister feel. Mickey Mouse is tightly grasping the girl’s arm while McDonald is laughing and waving like a celebrity. The large sizes of McDonald’s and Mickey overpower the small, defenseless girl. Although bright colors are frequently associated with the two popular characters, Banksy decided to keep the work largely monochromatic to intensify the drama of the piece.

The artwork was based on one of the most powerful photographs of the twentieth-century war. The original photograph, captured by Nick Ut during the Vietnam War in 1972, became a symbol of mass terror in America 2. In the photo, the girl was running in panic from a Napalm blast that had struck her house in Trang Bang, Vietnam while having her clothes ripped off and her skin burned. This poignant image of the Napalm’s victim was removed from the original context and was put in the middle of the two friendly faces of the United States – the country that dropped the bomb on Vietnam. Anyone who wasn’t aware of the original context would think she is smiling happily; however, the image of her between McDonald’s and Mickey represented an anti-capitalist and anti-war message. In the first place, it was the contrasting ideologies of Communism of Vietminh and Capitalism in the USA that triggered the Vietnam War 3. Capitalists only care about profit and making money; therefore, they forced wars on other countries to prevent the spread of Communism and generate profit to the government through militarization. However, only the lower classes – the innocent ones like the Napalm girl – had to suffer the consequences of war. Mickey Mouse is a famous cartoon character for children while Ronald McDonald is known for bringing happy meals to kids. However, they are also the two American’s multi-billion dollar industry which generates a culture of entertainment and consumerism. Although these characters are expressed on the media as the fun, loving icons, they distress the girl by grasping her arms in Banksy’s depiction. Behind the carefree display of American culture remained the Capitalist country which commercialized and glamorized war so that Vietnamese people have to endure the pain. Capitalism made Americans ignore the atrocities committed by The U.S Army since they are distracted by wealth and profit. Tim Noble and Sue Webster also gave critiques of consumerism in their shadow artwork Wasted Youth. The work consists of a 3D sculpture on the ground and its shadow which was created by directing a light onto the wall. The assemblage was made up of McDonald’s packaging, rubbish bags, and other food and drinks packages. At first glance, the sculpture looks like an ordinary rubbish dump, but when the light is cast on – it transforms into silhouettes of a man and a woman, maybe the artists themselves, leisurely lying and daydreaming. The majority of the work is in black with a touch of red and yellow from McDonald’s packaging. There is a strong contrast between the bright colors of various packagings and the black garbage bags; between the filthy waste pile and the finesse of the shadows.

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The work was a response to mass consumption in this throw-away society. The economic boom in America after World War II has contributed to the growth of consumerism and materialism which generated waste and pollution 4. The heap of trash shows an image of overconsumption, whereas the shadow represents the young generations blinded by wealth and material possessions to an extent that they unknowingly ignore the issue of waste. Through the image of the shadow resting comfortably on the junk heap, the artists also condemn themselves for taking goods and resources for granted without knowing they are fostering a culture of waste. They criticize the era of abundance where consumers keep buying products not out of need but out of desire, and massive companies like McDonald’s constantly generate waste from overproduction. By transforming junk into art, Noble and Webster reject our preconceived notion of waste as something to bury or throw away. The work redefines how abstract shapes can turn into figurative ones and challenges the relationship between low and high culture in art: what was thought to be filthy could turn into something aesthetically pleasing. In 2008, Sichuan, a Chinese province, was hit by a devastating earthquake which resulted in the collapse of government-built schools and killed countless number of people. It was believed that the government’s ignorance of civil engineering standards had led to shoddy constructions of schools, but the Chinese authorities blamed it on the earthquake’s magnitude. They even restricted reporting of the Sichuan disaster to downplay the issue and suppress criticism. Consequently, the exact number of school children who died was covered up and parents were offered monetary compensation in exchange for their silence. Being filled with indignation towards the government’s response, contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei examined the region after the quake to investigate the names of the dead and found over 5,000 names which he then posted them on his blog. Over time, he designed Remembering as a reaction against the shameless attempts of the government, but also to commemorate those who died in the earthquake. The work (measured 100 meters by 10 meters) was installed on the facade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany. It was made up of 9,000 backpacks in five different colors (white, blue, red, yellow, and green) collected by the political activist himself during his visit to Sichuan. The bags were arranged to spell out a sentence in Mandarin “She lived happily for seven years in this world” – which was a quotation by the mother of a seven-year-old daughter who perished in the quake.

Through this piece, Ai has become the ceaseless, unflagging voice for the voiceless citizens that lost loved ones in the earthquake. He cleverly reused the most unexpected material – children’s backpacks – to evoke nostalgia and sympathy through the powerful statement. The mother, according to Ai in an interview, “did not want the government to pay us money but just want her to be remembered.” That small, innocent girl would have been alive if only those schools were more well-constructed and if only the government did not overlook the value of life. The bold colors capture the essence of childhood and signify their joy and innocence that disappeared after the disaster. To him, each of the 9,000 bags represents the vanished life of a kid, which will be forgotten due to the whitewash made by the Chinese government. The vast scale of the installation allows people to interact and see the piece as they are walking by. This installation was undoubtedly one of the most politically involved and courageous works of art in China because only Ai dared to step out of the boundaries to criticize the Chinese government excessive use of power . This bold personality sets him apart from most Chinese artists who normally do not have the courage to voice their opinion in such a nation of censorship and control like China. The work responded to the ignorance of free speech; raised awareness about injustice as well as paid tribute to the loss of many so that they would never be forgotten.

Remixing allows contemporary artists to challenge social norms and interrogate constructed binaries, as well as voice their opinions for social and political change. Banksy’s Napalm and Wasted Youth by Noble and Webster outraged audiences by unveiling the exact nature of American capitalism and consumerism, while Ai Weiwei’s Remembering reflected the Chinese corrupt political system. The three pieces also created new aesthetics from existing materials and pushed creativity to a different level.

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